Art and therapy – can they work together?

Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend the start of the Art Therapy Conference at Goldsmiths Uni in London.     I stumbled on this last week and bought a ticket to listen to the key note speakers without really realising what it was.   In the event I found myself surrounded by highly qualified doctors and psychotherapists from around the world who had travelled to be there.   There were some art therapy students, but I am thinking I might have been the only art student there!
I went because I have always seen my art practice as personal therapy and was interested in learning more.

Grayson Perry

I have long been an admirer of Grayson Perry and his work.    Until yesterday I could not quite put my finger on what it was I liked so much, beyond his willingness to speak his mind and say what others don’t.    Listening to his Reith Lectures was very influential in my going to art college because he demystified the art world for me.
Grayson was at the conference to talk about the importance of therapy in his  work.   It is well documented that he uses his art to work through his personal issues (from a “colourful childhood” as he put it) but hearing him talk about his therapy was a joy.   He loved being in therapy and spent many years doing so, he said it was the best money he ever spent.   On talking about worries some artists have, that if they sort themselves out too much they won’t be creative, he dismissed that completely using the analogy of an untidy tool shed – if you tidy up, you still have the tools and no mess!
He also gave some advice in passing to art school graduates which I was particularly interested in of course:

  • Get therapy (he thinks it should be taught in art schools, so that artists can get on with their careers without their issues slowing them down)
  • Ask Who am I?
  • Ask What do I want?

And get on with it!
Grayson took us through a few of his artworks over the last 30 years and explained at what point he was with his therapy at the time and what issues he was working through.  He basically sees his artistic practice as a “career length psychotherapy project on myself” – he gleefully makes breakthroughs on a daily basis.   It was wonderful to see someone who is so evangelistic about personal growth.
He described therapy as a clarifying lens to look at the world and (crucially) to be aware of the distortions.    I couldn’t agree more, we all see the world through an incredibly distorted lens and the trick is to realise that that’s what you’re doing!
I particularly liked his maps of his inner world.  They were wonderful and I had not come across them before.  It is something I’d like to try myself.  I found them very moving.

Grayson Perry, Map of an Englishman

Grayson spoke with such passion and humour about his work and other historical artifacts and artworks that move him and I will be processing the talk for quite some time.

Patrick Casement

I had not come across the work of Patrick Casement, psychotherapist, before but I knew from his biography that he is a leading practitioner and author in the therapy world.
I could have listened to Patrick’s gentle voice and wonderful humour all night.  His anecdotes were amusing and deeply touching – reducing many to tears at points.
As an aside, Patrick recently survived a long cancer battle where he was given almost zero chance of survival – I have since read his incredible account of that here – well worth a read.
Patrick wanted to urge the audience of therapists to think about how they interpret a clients art – he was cautioning against the (presumably quite common) practice of looking and listening for a theory or past experience the therapist can attach to the current client in order to appear to understand.  But of course, they are not understanding, because they didn’t listen to the client with a fresh ear.
He pointed out that any interpretation of a client’s art work could only ever be your interpretation – and to do so was very damaging to the client’s recovery.   It is enough for the client to do the work and share it with the therapist, explaining what they want to, without having to have theories and ideas forced back onto them.
He talked about how some clients may present art work that is extremely violent or distressing to the therapist.   But it is only distressing because the therapist assigns their own meanings to it.
Patrick (and Grayson) both came across as compassionate and passionately believing in respecting others deeply.  Although it wasn’t put in this way, I would suggest that they are both wonderful examples of “I’m ok, you’re OK” thinking.

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